Much Ado about Memory (Part I)

Other than consciousness, which is arguably the most important aspect of being human, memory is what provides the mental structure for a meaningful life. After all, without memory, all of our thoughts would be in isolation, separated from the past without context. It would be a constant stream of thought generated from our immediate surroundings, or would simply percolate up from our subconscious— of which we have no control. We couldn’t understand jokes, drive a car or recognize a friend.

We take our memory for granted, but when it starts to fail we know that it’s a problem—a big problem. It’s very much a disability, but just not as evident or as obvious as a limp or a tremor. You know it’s happening; you’ve gone into the bedroom to get something and then forgotten why you went in there, or you are reminded of an important conversation with a friend that you can’t fully recall, or you can’t remember a paragraph you read right after you’ve just finished reading it. “It’s not a silly little moment,” as the John Mayer song goes, it’s as substantial and life changing as it gets.

When memory is mentioned in the media, it’s typically associated with a disease like Alzheimer’s or Senile Dementia. Most of what we know about memory has accumulated only in the last five years. Before then, the brain was thought to be “set,” in other words, non-changeable, which colored our view about its processes, and especially about memory. Since we didn’t know how memory was formed or where it was stored in the brain, strategies to improve it were based on conjecture and hope. This is not a good recipe for success.

With the progress of neuroscience came a clearer formulation of memory science. I can’t cover the neuro-chemistry of memory in depth in this short article, but I’d like to discuss some of the concepts of how memory works and talk about a few therapies that have worked in my office to improve brain function and restore memory.

Early theories thought of memory as a time-related progression, moving from sensory memory (1 sec.) to short term or working memory (up to 1 min), and then to long-term memories. A more recent theory suggests that it’s actually the depth of mental processing that creates long term memory. We have all experienced the effectiveness of giving an idea special meaning by associating it with something else. Having the brain take a more in-depth look at an idea requires neurons to fire in a particular pattern which forms a neuron “circuit” that actually alters brain tissue. When this happens your brain is never the same again.

A part of the brain called the hippocampus, along with the prefrontal cortex, is believed to be the transition point to long-term memory. If the hippocampus is functioning too low, memories simply peter away. This area of the brain also controls the adrenal glands that produce cortisol (the stress hormone), which, if is too high or too low, will decrease long-term memory. It should be said that memory is actually stored in many areas of the brain and so, to some extent, a healthy brain leads to a good memory. The prefrontal cortex is important because that is where the organization of memory occurs.

Next month, I’ll go over the approach I take for increasing overall brain health and improved memory, but for now remember that any improvement in nutrition, like decreasing carbohydrates (grains), fast food, increased omega 3s, and exercise will go a long way to making you remember the date of your partner’s birthday and where you put your keys. To really get into the specifics of your individual memory/brain issues, a full assessment of your biochemistry with blood and hormone tests (and possibly others) is needed so we can find the specific cause of your problem and issues that have developed over time.

Dr. Don Davis, D.C., DACNB is a BOARD CERTIFIED CHIROPRACTIC NEUROLOGIST in Walnut Creek. He has been serving individuals with chronic pain for 30 years. For information about how you can get a free consultation with Dr. Davis, call (925) 279-4324 (HEAL).